Occasionally something you eat will lodge its way into your memories and your tastebuds and though years may pass, you won’t forget it. And if the first time you tasted this something coincided with a poignant time in your life, you’ll never forget it, either. The memory will be wrapped up in the warp and woof of your heart. Such is the case with this Conversation Coffee Cake, which is not really a cake but is more like a big, unforgettable, shareable sweet roll. There’s a story behind it (there usually is), which I will tell you, and then I will share my super-easy recipe with you and perhaps you will make your own memories with it.
It’s story time, kids. Pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee.
It was the fall of 1995 and Bryan and I were in the kitchen, feeding littles (there were only four of them at this point) breakfast and gulping down our first cups of coffee. I paused for a moment and glanced at the headlines on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald, which was lying on the kitchen countertop, having been retrieved (by me, anticipating a good read later) from the porch only moments before. I stopped and gaped when I learned that the psychiatric hospital where Bryan had been gainfully employed for several years had been (forcibly) closed by the state the night before. My husband–already dressed in his work clothes, briefcase in hand–was surprised.
Also, as of a few hours hence, unemployed.
The months that followed brought about a lot of changes for us. Bryan quickly obtained another job, though it didn’t pay enough for us to meet our bills. (We were, after all, still making payments on two expensive private college educations, and it was nearly Christmas, to boot). My folks bought the kids winter coats that year, and the week after our old car broke down permanently, Dad pulled into our driveway with an old sedan roughly the size of a ferry boat that he had bought from the local car dealership and handed us the keys. “It’s ugly (it was) but it’ll do until you get back on your feet,” he said (it did.)
(I know. Don’t you wish you had my dad? Everybody does. I kinda won the Dad lottery.)
This humbling sequence of events convinced Bryan of a matter that he had been ignoring for more than a decade–that he needed more education in order to provide for his growing family. His master’s degree just didn’t cut it. So he applied to grad schools. One–Iowa State University in Ames–put out the welcome mat to him, in the form of financial inducements and an acceptance letter, and suddenly we were planning to move to Iowa.
I’m all about adventures, embracing change, and making lemonade out of lemons, at least the idea of doing so. But I did not want to move to Iowa. I was plum happy (continuing the fruit theme) in the little Nebraska town where we lived, surrounded by the folks I loved the best, and we had made ourselves a cozy home in our Craftsman bungalow on Third street. The house was surrounded by permanent beds and fruit trees that I spent a lot of time tending. Rhubarb, apples, asparagus, pears, and so much more. I had a little tiny hoop house in the backyard that I kept full of greens twelve months out of the year. When I put down roots, gentle readers, I let them grow deep (literally and figuratively).
But. I adjusted my heart and my attitude and went to work. Surely this mad scheme would work out for the best, and we certainly couldn’t sit around and wait for my Dad to bail us out again. We were in our mid-thirties, for Pete’s sake. Old enough to pay our own bills and buy our own dilapidated jalopies, thank you.
As for me, I had four littles I was schooling and raising, ages one through 9, so the idea of my getting a job was not an attractive or practical one. Especially since I was only qualified to sketch, paint, make watercolors and silkscreen prints, which wouldn’t keep us even in beans and rice for long. Well . . . I could type very very quickly. I can play the flute and the piano. And a few licks on the banjo. None of these abilities translated into quick money-making schemes, for the most part. I can’t even juggle.
So we had a couple of months to whittle down our possessions (always a lot of them where I am concerned, I’m realizing), buy a tiny house in Iowa, lose a couple of cats (one before the move, one afterward, both accidentally) and to hie ourselves to Iowa.
Did I mention that I was perfectly happy living just a few blocks away from my parents, and within spitting distance to one brother and two sisters? Well, I was.
I thought I was an adult! I cried, every stinkin’ day in fact, for nine months after we moved. Usually I found myself in a pathetic position–say, sitting alone on the dark crummy back steps going down to our dark crummy little basement with the scary bulging walls and the strange shower (lodged between the water heater and an open floor drain where the washer emptied) that smelled like pure chlorine–and I would just start bawling. Quietly. And alone because I didn’t want the kids to pick up on my misery (though they knew; they were sad, too). Alone because my hard-working hubby was taking a full load of classes and working full-time.
I wasn’t an adult, apparently, or else I could have dealt better with this big change. I was, in fact, six years old and I missed my mommy. And my big strong dad. My sisters and brothers. My Nebraska friends. And my old house on Third street, with the little notes that I had written on the walls deep in the storage spaces. (I never intended to leave it, you see).
I’m getting to the recipe; it is unforgettable in its own right (honest!) and it does tie into this story, I promise. And the photos are to tease you to hang in here with me until I get to the recipe. 🙂 Almost there . .
We didn’t want to pay the realtor’s fee, so we hand-painted a sign and stuck it on the curb. Within a few days, we had sold our house to a good family who later quickly cleaned it up and made it look better than we ever did. After we’d drafted contracts and had negotiated a few things and set a closing date, Anita, the cheery wife and mother of this good family, brought over a pan of this Conversation Coffee Cake. (Boom!) It was still warm, and dripping with a light icing.
We were at the point in our packing that all our plates and bowls and pans were in boxes, but we did have a stack of paper napkins. So, surrounded by boxes and monstrous to-do lists, we ate this marvelous warm bread on the paper napkins, with tall glasses of cold milk (we still had milk in the ‘fridge, and plastic glasses) and deemed Anita, the new owner of our house, a Bona fide Saint. This coffee cake, though it really looked nothing like a coffee cake, was a real Bona fide comfort to us.
I determined to get that recipe and make this wonderful treat for my family and friends. As soon as possible.
Fast forward twenty-some years (cough). We moved back to the same area, Bryan’s Ph.D. in hand, though not into the same house, years ago. Anita and her family are still making our old house look better than we ever could have. And Anita works at the local bank. Amazingly, Anita remembered the coffee cake when I asked her about it, and within a few days, she texted me this recipe. (Now that’s full-service banking!) I decided not to let another twenty years pass before I made it.
Happily, it’s as delicious and comforting as I remember. And certainly as bona fide. So here it is. And, though you can make it at any time, winter is an especially good time of year for it. It’s especially nice to make it when you’ve got persons close that you’re especially fond of to share it with. Make sure you have milk, too. And coffee . . . always coffee.
“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” –Edith Sitwell
- 2 Tb dry yeast
- ½ cup warm water
- 1.5 cups scalded milk
- 3 tsp salt
- ¼ cup sugar
- 6 Tb unsalted butter, melted
- 5.5 to 6 cups unbleached flour
- 2-3 Tb additional soft butter for pan preparation
- 1 cup butter, melted, for dipping purposes
- Cinnamon-sugar topping:
- 1.5 cup sugar
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 4 tsp cinnamon
- 1 cup toasted and finely chopped pecans (optional)
- and Creamy glaze:
- 1 cup powdered sugar + ½ tsp vanilla + 4 Tb heavy cream (give or take) + 2 TB softened butter
- Stir yeast into the ½ cup warm water, and let stand until bubbly, 10-15 minutes.
- Combine 1.5 cups scalded milk, 3 tsp salt, 4 Tb sugar, and 6 Tb melted butter and let cool.
- Stir yeast mixture into milk mixture.
- Add the 5.5 to 6 cups flour until a nice dough is formed and can be handled.
- Knead for 2 or 3 minutes or until dough is elastic and smooth. Put into a large greased bowl.
- Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise until doubled in size, approximately 2-3 hours.
- Rub soft butter onto jelly roll pan or round pizza pan. (I like to line mine with parchment paper, which I also coat with a thin layer of soft butter.)
- Mix cinnamon, sugars, and (optional) chopped pecans in a medium-sized bowl.
- Melt butter in pie plate.
- Pull off a handful of dough and roll into a long rope, and dip into butter first, then cinnamon-sugar-nuts mixture.
- Start in the middle of your pan and make a spiral with the rope of dough.
- Keep rolling, dipping and adding to your spiral until the pan is full, pinching the joints well. This big recipe will likely fill one jellyroll pan, with enough leftover for another small pie plate, possibly, depending on the size of your ropes. Or you can split it into several pans. It makes a nice gift, baked on a pie plate.
- Let rise, underneath a clean cloth, for 30-40 minutes or until approximately doubled in size.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until barely golden. Don't over bake!
- While your coffee cake is baking, mix up glaze: Mix vanilla and softened butter into the cream and then beat together until creamy, adding more cream if necessary to have a pourable, drizzling consistency.
- Let cake cool on a wire rack, and glaze when cool. Or just dribble it on while it's warm (that's what I do!) and just dig in! Enjoy!!
- Have some milk on hand, some coffee brewing, and you may want to invite some friends over.
I’m hoping that this recipe will become a favorite for you, gentle reader, and will become part of many sweet memories for you, too.
Thank you for popping in, dear friend. I appreciate your reading to the very end, I really do. If I ask you a favor, would you kindly grant it, if it is within your power to do so? If this sounds like a recipe that your friend, or your mum, or your kindly uncle would enjoy, would you share this post with him/her/her/him?
Thank you in advance, and *hugs* from
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